By Joseph Ushigiale
When Senator Mohammed Ndume representing Borno South rallied his colleagues calling on them to sacrifice by reducing their perks of office as well as contemplate adopting part time legislature for the good of the country, I was bemused.
Nonetheless, I also thought that at last, it was a fresh breathe of air coming from an arm of government that has abdicated its constitutional role of exercising checks and balances within the doctrine of separation of power with other arms of government and has become a deliberate parasite on the commonwealth.
In a country where an average workers earns less than $2 per day and the minimum wage, which took several years to negotiate, is now pegged at N30,000 per month up from its previous N18,000.
There is anger in the land, why not? Nigerians who are continually being pressured by their leaders to tighten their belts and sacrifice for the good of the country, are no longer smiling at the humongous earnings of their legislators.
The reasons are not far fetched. At the return to civil rule in 1999 and the subsequent inauguration of the National Assembly, the budget for the legislators was N2,204,150,000 representing 3.64% of the national budget that year to cater for 360 House members and 109 Senators.
By 2015, without any increase in the number of members, its budget skyrocketed from N2.2b to N227b representing 5.05% of the national budget that year. This year, the legislators increased the Assembly’s initially proposed budget sum of N125b to N128b an increase of N3b and N10b short of its previous 2019 budget of N139b.
The National Assembly and its organs, prior to 2015, had a yearly budget of N150bn for many years. A chunk of this sum, about N9bn of the vote went into the take-home pay of lawmakers.
However, between 2015 and 2020, the budget started ballooning upwards from N120bn to N139bn,even as Nigeria faced dwindling financial resources, particularly from crude oil market volatility. In the face of these unstable times, the budget rose to N139.5bn in 2018 only for the subsequent one to dip to N125bn in 2019.
While the legislators were smiling to the banks with bulging pockets, the living conditions of majority of Nigerians deteriorated by each passing day. The development caused anger and uproar with Nigerians seeking to know if these humongous payment to the legislators were duly earned, because to them, nothing could tangibly quantify their outrageous payments, which in comparative terms are about the highest in the world.
The financial profligacy exhibited by the National Assembly did not go unannounced. It caught the attention of the President, Muhammadu Buhari, who in 2015, opposed the huge pay, criticising the bid by the Senate at the time to buy cars worth over N47bn in addition to the transport allowances they were being paid.
Ideally, the National Assembly ought not be a drain pipe on the commonwealth as it is currently. The annual salary, including allowances, for each member of the Senate, according to RMAFC, is N12,766,320:00 (N12.7m). On a monthly basis, a Nigerian senator collects salary and allowances amounting to N1,063,860:00 (N1.06m).
On the other hand, each member of the lower legislative chamber, according to RMAFC, receives N9,529,038:06 (N9.5m) as annual pay and N794,086:83 every month.
The angst in the land emanates from the realization that in the House of Representatives, each of the 360 lawmakers pockets a total annual package of N136.6m or N11.3m monthly (or N33.9m quarterly). It has since come to light that the 6th Assembly jettisoned the old system of bulk quarterly payment which included total allowances, running cost and choosed to collapse the old system and embraced monthly payment instead where the entire emoluments are broken down per month.
Defending the Legislature from the allegations of collecting jumbo pay, Senate President, Ahmed Lawan declared that there was no such thing as ‘jumbo pay,’ adding that he earned N750,000 as salary.
But Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN), dismissed Lawan’s position and asked him to stop misleading Nigerians. Sagay insisted that senators earn N15million monthly and not N750,000 as claimed by the Senate president.
Hear him: “That’s where the jumbo pay comes in when you talk of building, furniture, domestic this or that, 15 items and those items alone bring everything up to N13.5 million a month. So, simply mentioning the base salary, which brings it over N14 million, is not sufficient.
“What they get — the current ones — that I have not been able to release. I had the details of the previous house. They were mindboggling; we are talking of one person getting up to N280 million a year in allowances for his position. But I don’t know what they had during the Saraki era or what the present group is going to award themselves.” Sagay clarified.
It is for this reason that the current call by Ndume on his colleagues to shed some weight and sacrifice for the people especially in the middle of the global pandemic and with dwindling financial resources.
In his words: “In the current system, workers are not being paid living wages, whereas a privileged few are earning luxury wages. The National Assembly members, including me for instance, are paid luxury wages.
“How can we live comfortably when only a few of us are living a life of luxury when the majority is living in abject poverty? The N30,000 minimum wage is too small; it can make workers engage in corruption in order to survive.
“We have a budget of over N10 trillion and only 30 per cent is going to the majority whereas 70 per cent would be spent on a few minority. The system we presently practice is not fair in terms of moral, religious or socially.”
Yet, Ndume’s treatise has provoked several questions most of which border on the feasibility of realizing such a project with the current legislature. Another worry is that the whole concept is woven round reducing the cost of governance; and with the presidential system which we are copying and its unwieldiness, would a switch to a parliamentary system which Nigeria inherited from the British work?
Opinions vary on each of these issues. On the feasibility of adopting a part time legislature, First Republic House of Reps member and Second Republic senator, Pa Ayo Fasanmi agrees that the cost of governance is exorbitant and queried whether people were having value for their money? According to him “When I was a federal parliamentarian in the first and second republics, love for the country was our motivation. I believe the cost of governance is very high.”
He noted that in this era that workers are being owed salaries, government should save cost. Fasanmi argued that the “people should decide whether a part-time parliament is suitable for Nigeria or not.”
Erstwhile Chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee on the 2015 National Conference, Senator Femi Okurounmu emphasized that full time legislature was a waste of resources and time. “The work of a legislator does not justify his being there on a full-time basis. I have been there myself. To be honest, the work could be better done on part-time. The enormity of work in the Senate — which is the highest level of lawmaking — is not enough to occupy the Senate every day of the week.”
He said given the legislators’ propensity of taking long recesses, they can achieve both legislative and oversight functions working on a part-time basis. He accused the legislators of taking advantage of their oversight responsibilities to make money for themselves. “Rather than keeping ministries, departments and agencies on their toes, they go about soliciting for money.”he declared.
However, analyzing the issues from a wholistic point of restructuring the federations units, Olorogun Moses Taiga, the president general of Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), said “full time legislature is a waste of money and resources. And our position was that devolution of power should accord each of the regions the power to retain their economic products.”
Warning of the danger that looms ahead, Ndume stated that the change from presidential democracy to parliamentary system might be difficult for the current National Assembly to undertake because the present system is also in favour of the federal parliamentarians. His position, he said was because the National Assembly is solely responsible for lawmakers in the country and the amendments to the constitution.
He posited that, “The National Assembly may not provide the necessary support needed to amend the constitution to accommodate the proposal that the cost of governance should be critically examined.
“The excess power bestowed on an individual in the presidential system of government can be abused and had even been abused by many occupants of the office. Therefore, it is high time for Nigeria to look at the original system of government that we inherited.”
He however identified a silver lining in the horizon and called on legal luminaries to come together and fashion out an acceptable arrangement that can lead to a constitution amendment through referendum.
To make it work, he said: “Legal luminaries should look at the way the parliamentary system could be implemented, like coming up with a national debate which should compel the National Assembly to either make it as part of the constitution amendment or a resolution that emanated from the debate.
“After the debate, there should be a referendum to look at the system of government we are practising now and the alternative we are proposing because we cannot, as a nation, sustain the current arrangement.
Ndume also urged Nigerians to wake up from their slumber and challenge the status quo using legal means. “Nigerians should demand a referendum to effect the type of system that would improve their wellbeing through drastic reduction in the cost of governance. The system we are running now, which I’m part of, is not fair to majority of Nigerians.
“Since Nigeria was a British colony, we started with the parliamentary system. All over the world today, parliamentary system of government is more popular than the presidential system,” he insisted.
Reeling off the gains of a parliamentary over the current presidential system, the lawmaker stated that it would engender transparency, reduce cost and become more manageable and effective.
He said, “It is also more effective in the sense that the head of government is more or less one among equals of the parliamentarians. Therefore, accountability is achieved in the chamber in the sense that the prime minister has to be in the parliament every day, and he must give account of government to his colleagues. Also, ministers are selected among the elected parliamentarians. The idea is to reduce the cost of governance and make it more effective.”
On his suggestion for the institution of part time legislature, he insisted that: “As far as I’m concerned, we can make the National Assembly a part time arrangement for now since we conduct our sitting once or twice in a week these days.
“For example, even we in the National Assembly, for the period of this pandemic, I strongly advocate that the work of the legislature and other people should be made part-time and therefore, pay them on part-time basis to reduce the cost.
“If we make it part time, that means our salaries must be reduced. The reality is that we can’t continue in a situation like this where 70 per cent of the country’s budget is going to personnel and recurrent expenditure as if everything is okay. This is a time when we are borrowing to fund the budget.
He said: “I even believe in the parliamentary system of government. When Prof. Ango Abdullahi said Nigeria should revert to the parliamentary system of government, I said I support it because the presidential system of government is not for poor countries like us.
Today, if Nigerians demand a reversion to the parliamentary system of government, I will support it”. He affirmed.
Perhaps to help the authorities take a well informed decision on whether or not to adopt part time legislature in order to reduce cost and still remain effective in a truly restructured sovereignty with federations units, let us borrow from a study conducted and released by United State of America’s National Conference of States Legislatures (NCSL)
The NCSL in this report says it prefers to look more broadly at the capacity of legislatures to function as independent branches of government, capable of balancing the power of the executive branch and having the information necessary to make independent, informed policy decisions.
It went on to note that “to measure the capacity of legislatures, it’s important to consider the amount of time legislators spend on the job, the amount they are compensated and the size of the legislature’s staff.”
It therefore decided to categorize the legislatures into different bands highlighting those that require huge resources because their dedication and commitment to their constituents and those who needed less resources on the strength of less commitment as you would read below.
Green Legislatures (Full-time, well-paid, large staff)
Green legislatures require the most time of legislators, usually 80 percent or more of a full-time job.
They have large staffs. In most Green states, legislators are paid enough to make a living without requiring outside income. These legislatures are more similar to Congress than are the other state legislatures. Most of the nation’s largest population states fall in this category. Because there are marked differences within the category, we have subdivided the Green states. Those in Green generally spend more time on the job because their sessions are longer and their districts larger than those in Green Lite. As a result, they tend to have more staff and are compensated at a higher rate. Within subcategories, states are listed alphabetically.
Gray Legislatures (Hybrid)
Legislatures in the Gray category are hybrids. Legislatures in these states typically say that they spend more than two-thirds of a full time job being legislators. Although their income from legislative work is greater than that in the Gold states, it’s usually not enough to allow them to make a living without having other sources of income. Legislatures in the Gray category have intermediate sized staff. States in the middle of the population range tend to have Gray legislatures.
Gold Legislatures (Part-time, low pay, small staff)
In the Gold states, on average lawmakers spend the equivalent of half of a full-time job doing legislative work. The compensation they receive for this work is quite low and requires them to have other sources of income in order to make a living. The Gold states have relatively small staffs. They are often called traditional or citizen legislatures and they are most often found in the smallest population, more rural states. Again, NCSL has divided these states into two groups. The legislatures in Gold are the most traditional or citizen legislatures. The legislatures in Gold Lite are slightly less traditional. States are listed alphabetically within subcategories.
We must note that this is based on the functionality of the United State presidential system that has federating units and fiscal independence backed by its constitution. If Nigeria needs to adopt any of this categories, it must restructure first to find the basis for such reforms.
Nigeria could take a lesson from this as the debate rages on but to achieve these lofty ideals, restructuring is key for such sweeping reforms to take hold.